Stuck

For perspective, consider that every one of these containers could function as a one-bedroom house.

A few years back, down in the Durango area (Colorado, not Mexico), a couple of men — from Texas, of course — took their Jeep where they shouldn’t have, and ended up becoming news fodder for a week.

And while I say “of course” they were from Texas, I think everyone in Colorado was just darn lucky they were Texans and not Coloradans. I don’t know about you, but in my younger days I managed to do a lot of ill-advised things with cars, getting into situations where I required rescue. I learned this from my dad, who probably learned it from his dad. And I don’t really think it’s just limited to men.

At any rate, these two men from Texas took their Jeep up a mountain that just kept getting steeper and steeper, and in a series of poor decisions, kept going even when the road stopped. Until they got so high up — I still have trouble imagining this predicament — they could do nothing.

Well above timberline, still below the top of the mountain, they came to a stop and could not manage a single action that wasn’t going to imperil their Jeep and probably them. They couldn’t go higher. They couldn’t turn around. They couldn’t back down. It was like a kid who manages to get his (or her) head through a stairway banister, but then somehow can’t get back out.

These men were able to walk back down the mountain, however many miles that took, leaving their Jeep stranded way up high. So high that they could not find any local willing to do anything other than laugh at them.

Eventually they did find someone to take enough pity on them to risk his own rig to help them, although it took almost a week. Their Jeep was rescued successfully, and I would tell you how, except that I don’t remember and I’m on too tight a timeline this morning to do five minutes of research. You’re on your own.

So when a ship got stuck in the Suez Canal last month, I initially regarded it as a similar story: a source of entertaining reading for me, along with some wonderment of “how does this happen?” Although we really couldn’t fall back on the standard Colorado sneer of “of course they were from Texas,” because the ship, owned by a Japanese firm, operating under Taiwanese papers, flying a Panamanian flag, managed by Belgians, crewed by Indians, and guided through the canal by Egyptian pilots, served as its own little melting pot.

Although it wasn’t really “little,” which is how it came to be stuck. This ship, which said “Ever Green” in huge — and I mean huge — letters on the side, was actually named the Ever Given (Ever Green is the company, and all their ships are “Ever” something), was, perhaps down to the inch, as long as the largest-allowable ship in the Suez. Newscasters in New York liked telling me it was as long as the Empire State Building is high, but I would have done better had they put it in Jeep lengths up a mountain.

Someone did draw a map, again on East Coast terms, showing that if all the cargo were unloaded and each container put on a truck and each truck spaced six feet apart, the line of trucks would extend 170 miles. In a map I could understand, that would be like leaving Denver on a non-pandemic Friday afternoon and inching along in non-stop traffic all the way to the western base of Monarch Pass. (I’ve never actuallly inched that far out of Denver, but Lynn and I did once make it all the way to Pine Junction in bumper-to-bumper non-action.)

While getting your Jeep stuck near the top of a mountain outside of Durango can prove costly to your individual pocket, getting a ship wedged sideways in a major waterway turned out to be far more costly than some of us initially thought.

There was the obvious back-up of other ships in the canal; it wasn’t even clear to me if some of those ships heading south into the canal had any option of turning around even if they wanted to. But then it turned out that this delay was going to cause back-ups in port. A landlubber closer to the sky than the sea might could be excused for not realizing how tightly scheduled all these ships are. Like airplanes arriving either late or early, the ships then become destined to hover on the maritime equivalent of the tarmac, waiting for a gate to open. More delay, more expense.

And, it turns out, more disruption to an already-disrupted world supply chain. Some of the containers on these ships contain finished goods; others hold raw materials to make the finished goods. So if you were waiting in Vietnam, say, for Egyptian cotton probably grown somewhere not Egypt, and that cotton got held up first by an inadvertent blockade of the Suez Canal and then by a hold outside of port, then your delivery of T-shirts is late to a distributor in Seattle, who then has nothing to send to Pat’s Screen Printing in Gunnison, no matter how much of a rush our customers might be in.

(I think Kara’s had a lot more trouble finding sweatshirts than T-shirts, but we might not even feel this recent back-up for another month or two.)

The economic impact of one too-big ship stranded in a too-narrow canal rapidly reached billions — a hit felt all the way around the world. Suddenly this did not feel quite so entertaining, even though social media was quick to call for putting the ship back once it was finally freed.

Which brings us, surprisingly, to U.S. Highway 50, which threads through Gunnison on its coast-to-coast journey. And which is going to see its own self-imposed blockade any ol’ day now. Any ol’ day now for at least the next year and a half. This notion of being stuck is going to take on a personal feel very soon.

Time magazine, many years ago, decided to feature a series of towns along Highway 50 — although when it got to Gunnison it decided to highlight instead Crested Butte, 28 miles north of the highway — but a lot of the time this road just stretches along unnoticed.

But now, in a plan to widen the road lanes to 12 feet, plus install a shoulder, the state is going to blast away the side of a little canyon no more than three or four miles in length. The only way to do this safely is to shut down most weekday traffic until at least November 2022.

Because these are the Colorado mountains, which look very flat on pieces of paper in Denver, where such decisions are made, there is no convenient detour. The closest option is another inadequate, narrow, twisty road (about which, it occurred to me, I have a blog post’s worth of stories — stay tuned!), which will dump people out in Delta, about 20 miles north of Montrose.

The state has also suggested, presumably with a straight face, that motorists consider Highway 160, which after an arduous five days — maybe it’s just hours — of driving from Gunnison might get you to Durango, where you can drive your Jeep straight up the sides of mountains and someone may or may not come to your rescue.

There is no good way around this five-mile blockage of a U.S. highway, and it’s got locals wondering about the impacts, which we can get into whenever this blog next makes an appearance.

In the meantime, remember that your Jeep goes rubber-side down, and keep your nose pointed straight up the canal, and everything will turn out for the better.

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